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Health: a matter of faith or investigation?

A friend sent me a link to a blog that had a good refutation of some of the major anti-vaccination arguments. In reading it, more ideas occurred to me about how people make health decisions based on misunderstandings of the scientific data.

So far on this subject I wrote about argumentation techniques, and how many of the unscientific arguments I read are based on fallacies. I also wrote about the scientific method, and why it can handle mistakes and new data when philosophies based on tradition or faith rather than method can’t.

The blog entry that my friend sent me is here, and is worth reading if you want to read more about the specific arguments that he makes concerning a particular anti-vaccine flyer he was responding to.

But I think that the bigger ideas he brings up are more interesting. He points out a few ways that people who haven’t studied science and medicine make mistakes, and why those mistakes might not readily be clear to someone else who doesn’t have a scientific background. I think the information below is well worth considering in how you make your decisions about your child’s (and your own) healthcare. If you are comfortable believing things as a matter of faith, then that’s the only answer you need. But if you truly believe that you want to make the best decisions based on the available information, perhaps this might help.

1. Similarly named chemical compounds are not necessarily similar

We are used to thinking that things with similar-sounding names are actually similar in their characteristics. So we know that Grape Nuts and Grape Nuts Flakes are two cereals that have some similarities. We know that no creator of a poisonous substance would give it the name Grape Nuts Powder, because that would be misleading, right?

In chemical names, however, very different things can have very similar names. Carbon dioxide is a gas that is in the air we breathe in, and we breathe it out in greater quantities. We can sit and breathe in a closed room with no problem. Carbon monoxide sounds similar, but is not at all, when it comes to human tolerance of it. A very small amount of carbon monoxide in a closed room will kill you.

Common misunderstanding: The “mercury” found as a preservative in vaccines. This is ethyl-mercury, and it is present in very small concentrations in vaccines designed to be given to multiple recipients. The mercury that we hear about as a toxin in our foods, specifically some seafoods, is methyl-mercury, and it enters your body through your digestive tract. The two are not comparable — though they have similar names, they are as different as carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide.

2. The same compound will have different effects depending on how it enters your body

A tiny amount of iron oxide (rust) in your food won’t hurt you. A tiny amount of iron oxide entering your bloodstream when you step on a rusty nail will kill you. Water is necessary to life when you drink it. When you inhale it, it can kill you. It’s clear that how you take a substance into your body makes a huge difference.

Common misunderstanding: See the mercury discussion above. Just because eating a substance in large concentrations in our food can be bad for you doesn’t mean that its presence in an injection is bad for you. There’s no relationship between the two (and in the case of “mercury,” it’s actually two different substances).

3. Something that’s good for you at one amount can kill you at another

Here’s a short list of things that we take into our body every day that are good for us, but could easily kill us if we eat it in enormous quantities: water, broccoli, peanut butter, wine… The list could get very, very long. Many of the things we eat have small amounts of toxins in them. Our bodies deal with that. But too much of anything can kill you. Take the well-publicized deaths of college students who drank gallons of water during hazing. Water, the stuff of life, is toxic in large amounts.

It’s true that many medications, household products, and tools of our everyday lives do have toxic elements to them. You can probably find something toxic about almost everything having to do with modern life. But is that a reason to reject it? And does that mean modern life is more dangerous than a pre-industrial life? Definitely not: Just look at our life expectancy vs. 200 years ago to see that the small amounts of toxic chemicals we get are a much better alternative to,  for example, entire villages being killed off by a viral infection. If they’d had vaccines in 1918, would it have been rational to say, “Well, I don’t know about that mercury in the vaccine, so I’m just going to let half of my family die a horrible, agonizing death instead”? The answer is obvious.

Common misunderstanding: The presence of a toxin in a food will always negatively affect human health. It’s much, much more complicated than that.

4. Natural is better than artificial

In many ways this is true, so this is a subtle one to catch. It is definitely true that research is finding that some artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives are more likely to cause behavioral problems in children. It is true that eating a piece of fruit without pesticide residue on it is healthier. But past that, there’s no proof that the natural version of something is better just because it wasn’t formulated out of its distinct chemical parts. It’s dangerous to assume that a chemical made through natural processes is safe whereas the same chemical made by combining other chemicals is not.

It’s instructive to remember many of the natural toxins in our environment: arsenic, lead, mercury. Also, the number of very natural plants and organisms that can kill us: mushrooms, venoms, etc. This is a good page that explains natural toxicity of certain substances. When I was looking for a soy sauce for our family that doesn’t contain the preservative sodium benzoate, which is suspected of causing behavioral problems in children, I found “all natural” Bragg’s Liquid Amino Acids, which tastes a lot like soy sauce. Note that on their page, they say that their product contains “no chemicals,” which is a ridiculous assertion. Cooking is all about chemicals and how they interact.

What they meant to say is that the chemicals released during the process they use were not cooked up together in a laboratory. What they didn’t say is that the result of the chemical processes they use is monosodium glutamate. The initials for that are MSG — in other words, the active ingredient in Bragg’s is the same stuff you find in Asian grocery stores as a white powder. Now, I will point out that no one really knows whether MSG has any effects that are worse than the sodium that we use more commonly, table salt. But food scientist Marion Nestle points out that “the research on MSG is so inconsistent that I can’t make head or tail of it,” and in any case, using Bragg’s is probably no different than sprinkling your food with the powdery stuff. You might know that it comes from fermented soybeans, but your body doesn’t care!


The cool thing about the scientific method is that all the questions that were raised above can be answered someday. Making blind assumptions like “things that are similar will behave similarly in my body” and “natural is better” don’t lead us anywhere. Always questioning and searching does, in fact, lead us somewhere. To date, it has led us to the longest, healthiest lives that humans have ever lived. It has also led us to quandaries like choosing between small amounts of toxins and other health risks.

But if we continue to question and to demand the analysis of all possible alternatives, we’ll be better off than resting on any idea as a matter of faith.

Posted in Health.

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